By Audley Peru and Ecuador specialist Holly
This may come as a surprise, but you don’t exactly travel on Peru’s Belmond Andean Explorer for the scenery. Comparatively little travel takes place during daylight hours, and you can look out onto exactly the same mountainscapes, desolate altiplano and river valleys if covering the route by car (at one point, the road even runs parallel to the tracks).
No, the experience is really about the giddy romance of exploring Peru by Agatha Christie-esque sleeper train, and all that entails. Conversely, Ecuador’s Tren Crucero, though not as plush as the Andean Explorer or a sleeper service, takes a decidedly scenic route, passing active volcanoes and cloudforest in its journey to the coast.
The Belmond Andean Explorer (Arequipa to Lake Titicaca to Cuzco)
Just as I was taking a sip of my pisco sour, the train gave a judder. Not that anyone seemed perturbed. Someone was tickling the ivories in the piano bar car, which hummed with conversation. We were, after all, journeying on a restored sleeper across the Peruvian Altiplano, and a bit of joggling or clickety-clacking every now and again — along with a few periods where the train only crawled along — was par for the course. Occasionally, the train would stop altogether for engineers to hop off and change the points.
Here’s what I really like about Belmond’s service: it manages to evoke something of the mystique of the golden age of train travel through several imaginative, nostalgia-inducing touches (more on those, shortly). And yet, at the same time, you never forget you’re in Peru while you’re on the train.
The walls are hung with vibrant, zigzag-patterned textiles and other handicrafts. The cabins and cars are furnished with alpaca and vicuña wool blankets. There’s a library of Peruvian books, and framed pictures of Amazonian butterflies and Andean villages decorate the dining car.
And then there’s the food, which is completely high-end while remaining in touch with the country’s roots. You can expect canapés and amuse-bouches using cuy (guinea pig), alpaca tortellini, homemade quinoa breads, and dishes using corn and other seasonal vegetables.
The route, day-by-day
Day 1: Arequipa to Lake Titicaca
Arequipa’s train station has received a facelift thanks to Belmond (it was previously only used by coal trains). Since we boarded at 5:30pm, dusk fell quickly as the train began its journey. You travel throughout the night, stopping, if possible, in a siding. The cabins are comfortable, but I admit I did wake in the night once or twice, aware we were ascending in altitude. (As always with travel to Peru, altitude sickness is a risk, although there are ways of mitigating it).
Day 2: Lake Titicaca
You wake up to breakfast overlooking the lake in the train station at Puno, a city on the water’s edge.
Included in the trip is a day-long visit to the floating islands of Uros that pepper the lakewaters. Your guide will introduce you to the hardy inhabitants who make the islands from meshed-together springy tortora reeds gathered from the lake, which they also use to craft their homes and boats.
After a lunch of fresh trucha (trout), you head to Taquile Island. It looks, on approach, like little more than a grassy hump, but its sides are contoured with terraces for growing crops. The Taquilenos, dressed in bright chullo hats, will show you their dexterous knitting and weaving industry, by which they live as a largely self-sufficient community.
When you get back to the train station, ready to board for the final leg to Cuzco, you’re treated to afternoon tea. A saxophonist plays, and I remember being grateful for the roaring log fire in the grate. It was now around 5pm, and the air (due to the altitude) had a sharp chill. The train departs for its final leg at around 5:30pm.
En route to Cuzco, you stop for a while to spend the night in a siding, which most people find gives them a more refreshing sleep. (You’ll also stop in a siding for the night on the Puno to Arequipa routing.)
Day 3: travel to Cuzco
Peeking out the window once it’s light, you find you have reached the Andes proper.
After breakfast, you disembark and travel for about 20 minutes by private mini-bus to the pre-Inca ruins of Raqch’i, where you can explore the Temple of Wiracocha, the Inca creator-god.
It’s an enormous site of mostly adobe structures, and the complex includes a row of columns with carved stone foundations, an artificial lake, bathhouses and qollqas (grain storehouses). You’ll also find local handicrafts for sale in and around the ruins, including some excellent ceramics.
The best scenery of the entire journey occurs once you board the train again for the last leg into Cuzco, snaking along the Urubamba Valley floor with mountainscapes on either side. Don’t be surprised if you see locals standing and waving from the sidings, especially as the train nears Cuzco, your journey’s end.
If you’re planning to go on to visit Machu Picchu, I suggest continuing your journey in style by taking the Belmond Hiram Bingham service from Poroy Station, just outside Cuzco. If you can, catch the service that departs around 9am (with an elegant brunch served on board). The alternative evening service travels largely in the dark and thus you miss out on the Sacred Valley scenery. Compared to the inhospitable altiplano, you’re in a much gentler, greener and more compliant-looking landscape: fields are sown with crops, and the agriculture gives way to more and more jungle the closer you get to Machu Picchu. You might even spot hummingbirds.
Reversing the route
It’s worth pointing out that if you reverse the route, departing from Cuzco and terminating in Arequipa, you have the opportunity to visit Sumbay Caves. These former dwellings, located in a canyon in the shadow of the stratovolcano known as El Misti, contain a veritable gallery of Paleolithic pictograms and paintings, including figures hunting vicuña.
Life on board
Staying on the train really is like heading back to the travel ambience of the roaring twenties.
It’s the novelty of going to bed in a traditional sleeper train bunk-bed cabin, complete with en suite shower, slippers, a robe, a safe box and chocolates left on your pillow in the nightly turn-down service. It’s spending several hours idling in the piano bar. Or slipping out onto the train’s observation deck at night, well wrapped-up, for a spot of stargazing (you’re passing through areas with minimal light pollution, and this, combined with the altitude, makes for superb visibility).
I also appreciated being able to chat to the all-Peruvian staff, who’ll willingly point out anything of interest through the window. One lady once stopped what she was doing to explain to me that the farmers in the passing fields were freeze-drying potatoes.
I’ll stop waxing lyrical for a moment to throw in a small tip about the cabin choices: as fun as the bunk-bed cabins are, I’d recommend booking a double cabin, if you can. They’re so much more spacious (I could barely open my suitcase in the bunk-bed cabin.)
Remember, too, to admire your room’s ceiling. It’s delicately painted to look as if it’s made out of tiles (in fact it’s tin), an Art Deco technique that I first saw in the hotel Casa Gangotena in Quito. Which brings me onto the candidate I feel takes the silver medal when it comes to South America’s greatest train journeys: Ecuador’s Tren Crucero.
The Tren Crucero (Quito to Guayaquil via the Avenue of Volcanoes)
Starting among snow-blanched volcanoes and finishing among lowland banana and cacao plantations on the coast, this four-day, three-night route lets you experience a significant cross-section of Ecuador’s landscapes and climates. The route involves travel on several different trains, including steam models.
On the way you’ll stop to visit local markets and indigenous communities. You also have the chance to ride the Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose) railroad in Alausí, which winds its way up the sheer-sided Condor Mountain via a series of serpentine switchbacks, before veering off to the coast.
The Ecuadorian government has invested heavily in renovating the country’s railways, and this shows. The Tren Crucero is a fairly slick, reliable operation, and it has reinvigorated several sleepy villages whose tiny stations were once practically mothballed.
It’s also a good option for anyone who loves train travel but isn’t fond of sleeping on board: it isn’t a sleeper service, and passengers disembark at night to stay in local haciendas. Some of these properties can, admittedly, be fairly basic, but some would argue that you’ll experience a better night’s sleep on terra firma.
The main downsides? The route doesn’t take in the country’s largest Inca site, Ingapirca, nor the colonial town of Cuenca (of Panama hat fame). To reach these places, you’d need to use the roads. Also, once on the train, bear in mind that you’ll be mingling with your fellow passengers for the duration of the journey, both on the train and during visits to local attractions, which can leave you with the feeling you’re part of a group tour.
However, the Tren Crucero arguably provides a more comfortable way of getting from A to B than by car.
The route, day by day
The following is just a sample routing and, as with the Andean Explorer, can also be reversed.
Day 1: Quito to Otavalo (and back again)
The trip actually sometimes starts with a journey even farther north, heading through the highlands beyond the Equator to Otavalo, a mountain town that hosts the craft market to end all craft markets.
I won’t list everything they sell, but the artisanal textiles, mostly produced by the Otavalos (the local indigenous people), are probably the most eye-catching. Think rugs, scarves, sweaters, bags and skeins of wool piled high in every shade of the rainbow on stalls lining the main square, Plaza de los Ponchos.
There’s also a livestock market a short walk away, although its wares are probably a little harder to take back onto the train.
Although Otavalo’s market is usually the high point of this day, the train sometimes makes a stop at San Antonio de Ibarra. Little more than a clutch of streets and a square, it’s a major hub for woodcarving, and its galleries are festooned with cedar figurines, chess sets, and other pieces. Then it’s on to the even smaller settlement of Andrade Marin to watch a local music performance.
You then travel back to Quito by steam locomotive in the late afternoon.
Day 2: Quito to Lasso via Cotopaxi
The day starts early, checking in at Quito’s Chimbacalle Station for 8am. After boarding, the train begins its course south through the patchwork valleys that form the Avenue of Volcanoes. Soon, you begin to see the almost-perfect cones of snow-capped stratovolcanoes rising above the farmed foothills.
Depending on how active it is, the train stops at Cotopaxi, the monster volcano whose snowline extends very far down its slopes. Here, you take a private bus to Cotopaxi National Park for an undemanding short hike to a glacial lake, Limpiopungo. Wild horses sometimes visit its shores. After circumnavigating the lake, you press on to a hacienda created from the ruins of an Inca palace, to eat a fresh and hearty Andean lunch. This might include a vegetable and quinoa soup with a soft local cheese and avocado, finished off with a glass of canelazo (a traditional hot alcoholic beverage made from sugar cane).
The day ends with a final train journey to the nondescript town of Lasso, where you spend the night.
Days 3 and 4: Lasso to Riobamba via Alausí, then Bucay to Guayaquil
After breakfast, you travel by private bus to Riobamba, a city ringed by five volcanoes, in time to take a steam train to visit Ecuador’s oldest church, La Iglesia de la Virgen María Natividad de La Balbanera (commonly called ‘Balbanera Church’). Constructed by Spanish conquistadors in 1534, it’s a diminutive structure, a blend of Baroque design with indigenous-inspired carvings in the stone: look out for angelic figures carrying a shigra, a traditional bag made from agave.
You pick up the Tren Crucero again to continue on to Alausí, passing by volcanoes including the vast snowy bulk of Chimborazo, which I think is just as impressive as Cotopaxi. You’ll connect to the Devil’s Nose railway for a ride to the foot of the mountain, to watch a display of community dancing, before the train shunts its way back up the slopes.
The final day sees you transition from the Andes to cloudforest to more tropical coastal plains and sugarcane plantations. It includes a visit to some cacao farmers, before your journey ends in Guayaquil’s Duran Station.
Practicalities of riding the Andean Explorer & Tren Crucero
- The Andean Explorer also offers a one-night sleeper option between Cuzco and Lake Titicaca. Your specialist will be able to advise you on whether this suits your travel plans better than the two-night route.
- You can also choose to travel on sections of the Tren Crucero for a day, rather than undertake the whole journey. Again, speak to your specialist about which option most suits your travel plans.